Why we still need a day like today
Because of Lucia Naido, because of Noxolo Nogwaza, because of Tebogo Mokhoto, because of Tshifhiwa Ramurunzi, writes Ella Kotze.
Johannesburg - Today is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT). The official website describes the initiative as “a worldwide celebration of sexual and gender diversities”, and the overall tone of the website is rather triumphant.
“Transgender People in Canada Are Getting New Human Rights Protections on IDAHOT”, proclaims one headline, and “Bhutan to mark IDAHOT for the first time”, says another. But the triumphant tones belie the deeper issues at play here: the very real discrimination that lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual people across the globe face daily.
While the South African constitution grants us protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the rape and killing of lesbians continues unabated.
Just a few weeks ago, Lucia Naido was murdered in Katlehong on her birthday.
Naido is the latest victim in a long line of violent crimes committed against lesbians in South Africa, but while the number of victims is rising, the number of convicted rapists and murderers is not.
In fact, more than four years after the murder of Noxolo Nogwaza, the police have yet to arrest anyone for her death.
Not only lesbians fall victim to violent intolerance. Last month, Tebogo Mokhoto was raped and murdered in Vosloorus.
Two weeks later, Tshifhiwa Ramurunzi was stabbed in Thohoyandou, apparently for wearing traditional women’s clothing at a bar. Ramurunzi’s attacker then laid a charge against him, which resulted in him being arrested and detained when he also tried to open a case.
Transgender South Africans wait years for their new identity documents and are often sent away by doctors who refuse to provide them with the necessary hormonal treatment.
Wedding venues regularly deny same-sex couples the right to tie the knot, despite the inevitable media uproar and legal cases that usually follow these actions.
In other parts of the world, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people face similar circumstances. Hussein Sabat, who holds the title of Mr Gay Syria, revealed last week that Islamic State had beheaded his first boyfriend - one in a string of executions of gay men by the extremist group.
A group of pastors in Malawi has called on the government of that country to arrest the 4 000 LGBT people living in Mzuzu city. LGBT students have been the targets of a string of homophobic attacks over the past two months.
Tunisia has prosecuted at least seven men for consensual same-sex conduct in two prominent cases over the past six months. Transgender residents of North Carolina in the US have been forced to use bathrooms that are not in line with their gender identity.
It is easy to condemn the rapists and murderers of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people - criminality is easy to identify and it carries inherent moral consequences.
It is also easy to identify and condemn overtly discriminatory policies and laws and blame religious fanaticism or other types of extremism for their existence.
But not only extremists, murderers and rapists are homophobic, transphobic or biphobic.
It does not take the form of spectacular acts of overt violence alone. Like racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, they can be understood instead as a set of biased attitudes, policies and practices that enforce and entrench both violent and non-violent discrimination against LGBT people.
Heterosexism is the societal and institutional reinforcement of heterosexuality as the privileged and the norm; and the assumption that everyone does or should identify as heterosexual.
Cisgender privilege is a set of unearned advantages that individuals who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth accrue solely due to having a cisgender identity. Both are propagated through seemingly innocuous means.
Popular culture serves up a steady stream of heterosexual, cisgender lives, with gay, lesbian and transgender characters thrown in for extra spice and facades of diversity. Bisexual characters rarely receive airtime.
School curricula deal exclusively in heterosexuality, and babies’ genders are marked by strict allocation of blue and pink in various hues. Boys are told that only moffies cry, and girls are warned that only ladylike behaviour will ever catch them a husband.
Many LGBT South Africans live in fear of losing their jobs, housing, families and friends if anyone had to find out about their sexual orientation or gender identity in spite of our laws guaranteeing our rights.
The theme for IDAHOT 2016 is Mental Health and Well-Being. As with all other modern institutions, the mental health industry has a rocky LGBT past.
Until 1973, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and only the most recent iteration of the DSM, published in 2013, removed the old transgender diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” and replaced it with “gender dysphoria”, reflecting a shift in thinking around gender from an identity-based concept that can be classified as either normal or abnormal, to an experience of discomfort based on what are regarded as normative gender characteristics.
Generally speaking, there has been an acceptance in the mental health community that sexual orientation and gender identity in themselves are not indicators of mental illness and that neither represent a state that can or should be “cured”, but that mental illness in people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities are instead the result of societal and familial pressure and discrimination.
Mental health and well-being are seldom prioritised as key primary health-care services and, as a result, psychotherapy and counselling are hard to access for those on the lower rungs of the middle class.
For the working class and those living below the breadline, access to mental health services is a near impossibility.
The rising cost of medical treatment is forcing many transgender folks to forego psychotherapy as part of their treatment packages, leaving many vulnerable and alone through what can be an extremely traumatic and alienating experience.
LGBT people in rural and peri-urban areas rarely have access to trauma counselling and many develop serious mental illnesses such as depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the violence and discrimination they face almost daily.
We need not flood the market with more psychologists, however.
We can all contribute to the mental and emotional well-being of LGBT South Africans. We need to start thinking about the words we use, the jokes we tell, the stories we write and the songs we sing.
We need to be conscious of the ways in which we have set our world up in ways that exclude those who do not share our sexual orientation and gender identity. And we need to challenge the instances of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia we witness - at work, at school, in the home and on social media.
If we manage to do that, we will not need initiatives like IDAHOT any more.
* Ella Kotze is a community and counselling psychologist
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.